5 Ways to a Healthy, Happy Summer for Your Kids

This story originally ran June 13, 2018, and was updated June 24, 2024.

Does your child count down the days until summer break? Do you? While children may be eager for an extended time away from school, the summer weeks can be tough on parents trying to keep their kids occupied. You might have signed yours up for a full slate of summer camps, but even so, you may be wondering how to fill all the extra time.

We spoke to UNC Health pediatrician Edward Pickens, MD, for ideas that you can implement over the summer to keep your child’s mind and body active.

1. Go outside.

Put on some sunscreen and a hat, grab a water bottle and go make the most of the long, sunny days. Time outdoors is a great way for your child to be physically active while engaging the imagination.

“Kids in the 21st century tend to entertain themselves with devices rather than what they can see in the world,” Dr. Pickens says.

There is plenty to do in your own backyard and in the world beyond. Dr. Pickens recommends taking hikes or bike rides with your kids or visiting nearby state parks and zoos.

“The key is to combine the physical activity and talk about what you see along the way,” he says. “You can talk about lions in the zoo or pine needles in the woods where you hike. And don’t be afraid to let your children get dirty. Let them turn over rocks, let them stand in creeks, let them pick up bugs. Do it together.”

With the littlest kids, these conversations will build language and learning. With older kids, let them take the lead on their observations. Keep track of questions they ask, and later you can work together to look up new information.

“You don’t need to be a bird expert to talk with your children about a heron that you see standing in the river,” Dr. Pickens says. “You’re allowing them to be curious about the world around them.”

2. Foster children’s interests to encourage learning.

You may be worried about learning loss over the summer or think that you need your child to spend time with flashcards or workbooks so they don’t fall behind. Instead, Dr. Pickens recommends that you find ways to nurture your child’s interests; the learning will follow.

“We have created a society that equates success with academic achievement, but there are many ways to learn and be successful,” Dr. Pickens says. “Don’t try to replicate the classroom or turn learning into a formal activity. Children learn when they’re having fun.”

To that end, Dr. Pickens encourages parents to identify their children’s interests and find or create related age-appropriate activities. If your child loves trains, for example, take a short ride on Amtrak or visit a train museum. Have a child who loves art? Set up an easel outside and let them paint what they see. Ask your budding chef to choose a recipe and help with grocery shopping and meal prep. Get out your tools and make something with your aspiring architect.

If you’re not sure where to start, head to the library. Pay attention to the subjects your child gravitates toward—you may come home with books on how to knit a scarf, build a robot or grow a garden.

“If you allow your child to expand their mind in a way that interests them, there will be lots of opportunities to learn, and they’ll be able to catch up after any learning loss in the fall,” Dr. Pickens says.

3. Engage with your community.

Remember that if creating activities for your child seems daunting, you don’t have to do it alone. Your local municipalities and neighborhood associations have programs meant to be fun for everyone.

“Go to community events together as a family,” Dr. Pickens says. “Look for art and music festivals, movies in the park, street fairs, library events and more.”

These can help make summer feel special, even if you don’t have a vacation planned. “Kids live in the moment, so if there is a fun activity, they’re not worried about a trip that they’re not taking,” Dr. Pickens says.

Summer activities can be a way for children to socialize, which is healthy for their development. Children who are enrolled in day camps have plenty of opportunities, but if your kid isn’t involved in that kind of structured activity, make sure to provide chances to see friends. Work with other parents to rotate playdates or hangouts.

“Especially in the teenage years, interactions with others are very important, because teens who feel isolated are more likely to develop depression or explore substances,” Dr. Pickens says. “When all of the interactions are online, children can lose a lot of aspects of communication, like the ability to read faces or pick up on social cues.”

4. Encourage volunteering or working.

Summer can be a great time to introduce your child to volunteerism.

Check with local organizations that you support to see if they have service opportunities for children. A retirement community might welcome young people to send drawings or letters to residents, for instance. Or your child could clean out their closet and donate some toys to a fire station or a civic group to help others in need.

If you’re looking for ideas, websites such as VolunteerMatch (for kids of all ages) and DoSomething (for teens and young adults) include searchable databases of volunteer opportunities.

Older children might benefit from spending the summer learning about the working world.

“It’s important to give teens exposure to jobs, even though summer jobs are not necessarily fun,” Dr. Pickens says. “They’ll get used to the idea of working and contributing to society, and they’ll see what goes into earning a paycheck.”

Teens who aren’t old enough for a job can still get valuable experience by shadowing someone in a career they may be interested in. It could be a retail store owner, a graphic designer, a lawyer, a chef or a manufacturing engineer.

5. Allow children to solve their boredom.

Perhaps summer strikes fear in your heart because you dread hearing the words “I’m bored”—which can be especially frustrating after a week’s worth of fun and enriching activities. Don’t feel that you have to find more for your child to do.

“Children have to learn how to entertain themselves, which takes practice,” Dr. Pickens says. “Saying ‘I’m bored’ might show that they’re out of practice.”

Instead of filling every moment, urge your child to play, draw or read on their own, or head to the backyard or the park without an agenda.

“Don’t be afraid of unstructured playtime, and do it outside as much as possible,” Dr. Pickens says. “Imagination is very important, so try to get them away from their screens, which will show them someone else’s imagination, not their own. Encourage them to explore, and they will find things that spark their imagination.”

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s health, talk to your pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one near you.